An “entheogen” is a psychoactive substance, such as LSD or psilocybin, which induces in the user “an experience of transcendent reality,” in the words of the author of the foreword, Brother David Steindl-Rast, to Psychoactive Sacramentals or, more simply, a sensation of the holy. This is the sensation the Romantic poets called “the sublime,” or that religious scholars call (Steindl-Rast again) the “mysterium tremendum”: the awe-inspiring mystery of the universe. In an age when psychoactive substances, such as Ecstasy, have been reduced to use for partying, dancing, and sex, this collection of essays is a reminder that it wasn’t always like this. T’was a time when acid, peyote and magic mushrooms were keys to opening, as Aldous Huxley put it, “the doors of perception.”
Many of the essays in Psychoactive Sacramentals could be considered contributions to that distinctly American mode of philosophy, Pragmatism. American Pragmatism, as founded in the second half of the nineteenth century by Charles Sanders Peirce (rhymes with “nurse”), and popularized by Peirce’s friend William James (of The Varieties of Religious Experience fame), had as its primary goal a sort of marriage of heaven and hell: the wedding of scientific rationalism with religious sensibility.
The problem faced by spiritually minded scientists has always been what to make of religious, or numinous (to use the scholarly term) experience. After Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, humankind was dealt yet another Copernican-style decentering. In 1859, not only was the Earth no longer at the center of the universe, but now humankind was also not the crown of creation. The need for a designer and creator was eliminated by random mutations to the seed line (what we now call the genome) of a species. But, say pragmatists, there’s no point trying to deny the validity of religious experience: the numinous happens. The mission, should a philosopher chose to accept it, was to find rational, phenomenological ways of describing such experiences. What resulted were, among other things, huge catalogs of cross-cultural experience, not least among them James Frazer’s mighty multi-volume The Golden Bough. Like an underground stream flowing beneath the surface of such works as Frazer’s were also a few, and more and more as the twentieth century wore on, dedicated to ethnobotany—that is, the use of plants by indigenous cultures. As Huston Smith, the great “perennial philosopher” and historian of religion, remarks in an essay in Psychoactive Sacramentals, “During a seminar at M.I.T. in the early 1960s, [Aldous Huxley] said that nothing was more curious, and to his way of thinking more important, than the role that mind-altering plants and chemicals have played in human history.”
Psychoactive Sacramentals is a brave attempt to, so to speak, pragmatize entheogens. The volume is also a sometimes-cheesy attempt to proselytize the use of entheogens. The latter contributions tends toward New-Agey poetry, and the book would be better if such nonsense had been left out. It’s nonsense because, yes, of course, the experiences induced by entheogenic substances are indeed overwhelming—full of grand emotions and sensations of light and color. But naïve exclamations of wonder and delight do nothing to further the case for entheogenic research, and might do much to hinder it. As Roger Walsh, in his contribution to the volume, says, “it’s clear that drugs can induce religious experiences, but it’s less clear that they can induce religious lives.” The ephemeral ravings of the newly experienced don’t add anything to the solid work contributed by other, more experience researchers in this volume.
The solid contributions include those from the discover of LSD, Albert Hoffman, “LSD as a Spiritual Aid,” in which he wrestles with the nature of consciousness, and finds it to be an interior phenomena of the mind-brain (“the kingdom of God,” as Luke wrote in his Gospel, “is within you”); a good piece by Presti and Beck on “Strychnine and Other Enduring Myths,” in which they disabuse us of the notion that acid is “cut” or adulterated with strychnine; and several pieces on the use of psychoactives in therapeutic situations, such as Ann Shulgin’s “The New Psychotherapy: MDMA and the Shadow.” As well, there is a fine historical essay by Dan Merkur, “Manna, the Showbread, and the Eucharist: Psychoactive Sacramentals in the Bible,” a piece that should be required reading in Bible-Belt seminaries if for no other reason than it would make hate-spewing narrow-minded preachers fall dumb with rage.
When LSD, and other entheogens, were outlawed in the late 1960s (in the U.S. in 1968, California having led the way in 1966, with Canada following the U.S.’s lead in 1969), much useful research came to a grinding halt. Timothy Leary, before going off the deep end and proselytizing for a tail-chasing sort of revolution (just how do you both “tune in” and “drop out”?), with his colleagues at Harvard, did useful therapeutic work with alcoholics and criminals, getting the former to dry up and demonstrating a lower recidivism rate in the latter. And Humphrey Osmond, at the University of Saskatchewan, likewise was on the tract of genuinely helpful uses for psychoactive substances. That research has died out or, at best, gone underground since then. This valuable book gives us a glimpse into what little has been done since 1968, and acts as a solid counterweight to the hysterical anti-drug groupthink of American mental health and criminal justice policy. The publisher, the San Francisco-based Council on Spiritual Practices, is up to something both timely and badly needed. They deserve our support.